A New York marching band is making history Monday, as they become the first special needs drum corps to perform in Manhattan’s famed Columbus Day parade.
The 65-member group from Old Bethpage, N.Y. put weeks into preparing for the performance, which their director told FoxNews.com had them, “ecstatic.”
Brian Calhoun, the director of FREE Players Drum Corps, said the group’s three sections, drum line, color guard and front ensemble, practice once or twice a week, and as a collective group every Wednesday.
“They’re completely overwhelmed, but very focused,” said Calhoun. “I’ve been playing for over 20 years, and I’ve never had the privilege to work with a more passionate group,” Calhoun said.
Each member of the group – which consists of kids on the autism spectrum, and kids with Down syndrome and other developmental disabilities -- is able to read music. The members either had the prior ability to read it, or Calhoun worked to teach them.
Calhoun, also a professional drummer, was inspired to start the group in 2010 after working with one student who he said “played like a professional.”
“When I saw what Steve was capable of, it got me thinking that if I could just build a group behind Steve, we could have something spectacular,” Calhoun said.
Steve Malerea, Calhoun’s inspiration, was one of only five members when the program started. Malerea is now a volunteer staff member who oversaw the group when they became the first special needs band to ever perform at the WGI Percussion World Championship in front of 14,000 people in Ohio.
“I’m speechless, it almost brings me to tears every time I think about how far we’ve come,” Calhoun said.
FREE Players Drum Corps doesn’t like to refer its’ members as having disabilities, preferring to say they tap into people’s different abilities and talents.
The group made history multiple times in becoming the first special needs group to perform at an event, continuing to “break down barriers,” Calhoun said.
“We spread the message that everyone can communicate through music,” he said.